The Gravner operation is serene, simple, spotless, and small. The tour of the facility is quick, and each space is intelligently designed and spared of clutter or unnecessary objects. There is a holistic feeling throughout the endeavor. Josko was very cheerful and talkative (Mateja is traveling). The wines are as Neal described, and are totally unlike the white wines from our Carso growers in every sense aside from their ‘natural’ philosophy and the use of skin maceration. I think it is important to underline the differences: Gravner picks much later, is working a very different terroir, and is growing different varieties (Ribolla, being thick-skinned, needs more time to mature than the varieties in the Carso). All of this, along with Josko’s not-so-gentle reminder to serve these at cellar temp, is reason to inspire me to avoid referring to the Ribolla or Bianco Breg as white wine entirely!
Vodopivec is nothing short of a miracle: emotional and moving. I struggle to find the right words to describe this place. The cellar is cut from the rock in a figure-eight shape, like the body of a guitar. The amphorae are lined up in a circle around one center, and the large barrels around the next. The fact that these wines spend 6 months on their skins and, save for the ‘Origine’, another 6 months in amphorae, is remarkable considering the delicate nature of the color, tannic extract, and overt transparency of the wines. The 2015s from cask were a revelation. The 2014s from bottle are also excellent. Paolo’s first vintage, while still working with his father, was 1997. I drank a 2006 a few months ago with Jeremy, and it was pretty dark and tannic. Gravner was a major influence, and Paolo described his early efforts as reaching for power and intensity. After opening a bottle from a difficult vintage (2002?) some years later, he was impressed by the wine’s balance and purity, despite worrying about it at the time. He described this experience as an inspiration, and the results are clear: these wines show remarkable finesse and precision, and express minerality in such clear tones as to be confounding. Hyperbole aside, the 2011s we drank with dinner felt less refined – they were excellent by any standard, but by comparison felt more alcoholic and flat-footed. Fun fact: Vodopivec in Sloven means ‘Drink Water’.
Visiting Zidarich is sort of like going to a fun restaurant: we entered straight into a large dining room that opens out onto a deck with more tables, all facing the Adiratic. There is a kitchen that looks set up for events: this is a place designed to hold large groups and parties. Down the stairs we go, and find an operation that is busier and perhaps not as monastically minimalist compared to the austere nature of Gravner & Vodopivec (though certainly not messy or disorganized). Big casks fill up most of the cellar, and the cask samples showed wonderful character and life. There is a bit more of a classic skin-fermented quality to the whites here, but I would not describe them as tannic or even ‘orange’ – they are white wines, first and foremost. The stone fermenting vessels (there are two now, although I don’t know if the newer is in use yet) are uniquely stunning. Producers of wine & olive oil have been known to use them for storage of finished products, but Benjamin maintains that he is the first grower to use them for fermentation. They are beautiful, compelling objects, but beyond their physical appeal lie advantages for the winemaker: nearly perfect temperature control and enough porousness to provide an environment that is not anaerobic. (I’m not certain if the stone is more or less porous than wood barrels, but I’m inclined to say stone is much less oxidative!) Benjamin explains that he would love to use only stone for all his wines, but it is prohibitively expensive to commission enough stone fermenters. Let’s hope he can continue to put resources towards this project: the wines behave differently in the stone and I believe they are the standouts in his cellar.